Sunday, July 31, 2011

On No Child Left Behind

Assemblywoman Brownley, of whom I wrote yesterday, does not mean badly, I presume; she is, I suppose, listening to the complaints of local public school officials, who complain of "creaming". According to this contention, when charter schools allegedly "cream" or "cherry pick" students, they are taking those who are easiest to educate and likeliest to produce high test scores, and leaving the other, more difficult, lower scoring students behind.

My first objection to this argument is that it regards students as property, currently owned by existing districts, and metaphorically regards them as inanimate objects (cream, cherries), rather than real human beings with preferences, aspirations, and (with their families) a constitutionally protected right to the pursuit of happiness, as they see fit.

But after discounting these inappropriate metaphors, these objections raise the legitimate question, "What would you do about those children who are hardest to teach, come from the most scholastically disadvantaged backgrounds, the ones least likely to get selected in a selective competition for students--those 'last' who, in the words of Jesus, will eventually become 'first'?"

This is a large issue, and I will only introduce an answer here, which I will develop a defence for as this series of posts develops (and I look forward to dialogue with commentators): we need a modern, effective system of vocational education for our family members, friends, and neighbors who are less scholastically inclined, so that when they exit our formal school system, usually at a younger age, they transition smoothly into well paying, respectable, respected, productive jobs and lives as our fellow citizens, free and prepared to return to further education when their desires and changing maturity levels indicate that such is the right move for them at that time.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

It's Getting Difficult to Open Good, New Schools in California

Julia Brownley, Chairwoman of the California Assembly's Education Committee, presumably means well in presenting her latest package of education bills (AB 360, AB 440, and SB 645), but Californians would be better served if she and her supporters would take more long vacations.

While 360 and 645 are nuisances, providing yet more reasons for educators to be distracted from serving their students because of the demands of regulators, 440 is the real charter killer. AB 440 would require charter schools to serve student populations similar to those served by local public schools, or to the neighborhoods in which the charter schools are located, or to serve special populations specifically identified in their charters, to be verified at the time of their charters' renewals. This might sound flexible and reasonable, but in practice it will freeze into law the principle that charter schools are not allowed to compete with private schools and magnet schools; they must either be local comprehensives or alternative schools, in California.

Local comprehensives and alternative schools are models that we need, the former in particular in primary and rural education, the latter in densely concentrated areas with large enough populations to make these schools' existences viable. But a real market for strictly college-preparatory education exists, and is served currently by numerous private schools and magnet schools. One World Secondary School is envisioned as a charter school with a magnet international school, capable of competing with expensive private schools, embedded inside it, as an aspiration for as many comprehensive school students of all creeds and colors to qualify to attend and succeed at as possible. But Ms. Brownley's legislation would make this school, which I would like for my own child, many other parents would want for their own children, and the system as a whole should want to at least try for its own good, to see if competition from a replicable model can fundamentally shake up our current approach to secondary education and give us a real chance to compete successfully with other nations and their secondary schools, impossible.

If she has her way, not only will my family, and countless other middle class families, suffer, from the loss of a freedom in a state with vanishing dreams; gifted, poor students, like many I used to teach at Locke High School, who cannot afford private schools and are dissatisfied with their current alternatives, will suffer too, thanks to a Democrat who might claim to be standing up for the poor and disenfrachised but is actually legislating to make sure that those students remain locked into local ghetto schools, with little chance of escaping.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Most of All, We Need to Open New Schools With Better School Models

"You can't fire your way into a successful school system", former Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker rightly said; as I've been arguing this week, you need to have better teachers available to replace those you're moving out, and better principals as well. But most of all, as bad schools are closed (preferable to turnaround efforts, like that of Locke High School, where I used to work), you need to have promising new schools waiting in the wings to open.

My trustees and I are planning to open One World Secondary School, a model that has evolved from ideas I first began formulating 20 years ago. We are trying to attract money, political support, and parental support to what we believe is a solution to the twin dropout crises--the much heralded dropout crisis in our high schools, and the less well-known, less addressed dropout crisis in our colleges.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, at this week's Iowa Education Summit, said that charter schools "are not needed in every district in New Jersey and wouldn't add much to the education offered there." But although Governor Christie has been a real leader on some important education issues, he's wrong this time, and wrong to back down in the face of the suburban status quo.

I will be arguing in the coming weeks why I believe One World Secondary School represents the model most deserving of support today, while also addressing more topical, current education issues, such as the SOS march planned for this weekend in Washington; but to begin, I'd like to draw attention to the excellent article in last December's issue of The Atlantic, "Your Child Left Behind", in order to build some of the urgency needed to reform schools in every neighborhood in the United States.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

And We Need Professional Principals, Too

There is a scene in Waiting For Superman in which Superintendent Michelle Rhee fires a principal. While it is extraordinary that the dismissal was filmed, it may well be the kind of action that is inevitable if we are going to meaningfully improve our schools. Good schools recognize the importance of accountable, dynamic school leadership and compensate it accordingly.

But some in the education blogosphere bemoan a dearth of talented school leaders willing to supply the need, and small-school models inherently call for the creation of far more principals' positions than the traditional comprehensive school model requires, so where are all these education superheroes supposed to come from?

One place they have not been coming from, so far, is from special principals' academies like the one set up in New York City in the last decade to fill the need. A very interesting story in The New York Times showed that schools headed by typically young (early 30s) Ivy League types with minimal educational experience but special academy training were being outperformed on the city's accountability measures by more experienced leaders who rose through the ranks in the old-fashioned way, contrary to the academy's expectations.

If we were to genuinely empower principals, as independent schools often do, and not bestrew them with the kind of regulations that have strangled the traditional public schools and led to such intense frustration on the part of those schools' principals (see my post of 8 July for this),  we might make education in general a more enticing career for young people, and draw more much-needed talent into schools of all kinds.   

Monday, July 25, 2011

Increasing the Supply of Professional Teachers

Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has devoted much of her career arguing for a professional teacher supply pipeline. In part, she argues (1) that the quality of our teachers is the most important in-school factor affecting outcomes for students, and (2) our current professional teaching force is inequitably distributed, so (3) key to closing the achievement gap is to ensure that truly professional teachers are in every classroom in the United States. These points would likely be agreed with even by her critics in our long-standing education debates.

This is important in light of George Parker's claim that "You can't fire your way into a successful school system" (discussed yesterday): it makes no sense to dismiss a current ineffective teacher if you don't have a better one waiting in the wings.

This issue made it difficult for us to improve during my years leading the English department at Locke High School. I knew that we had a number of weak teachers on our faculty, but even if we had been able to dismiss them (virtually impossible under the contract between Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles), the usual alternative was a long-term substitute teacher, rarely a good deal for students. (Working to improve relatively weak teachers is of course a preferable option, but was very difficult under the conditions then prevailing at Locke.)

There are thousands of similar failing schools across the United States. Without far more good teachers, in particular ones that can be effective with hard-to-teach students in hard-to-staff subjects in hard-to-staff schools in all-but-abandoned neighborhoods, we won't build school systems that we can all be proud of.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

But Firing Teachers and Closing Schools Isn't Good Enough

George Parker is a brave man, perhaps a visionary. The former president of the Washington Teachers' Union, he negotiated a forward-looking teachers' contract with Superintendent Michelle Rhee in the spring of 2010, winning his teachers a 21% pay increase in a disastrous economy, in exchange for loosening their job security. And like Mayor Fenty and Superintendent Rhee, he too lost his job (although he has since joined StudentsFirst as a senior fellow).

During the months of their negotiations, they were not so chummy, and Mr. Parker once said, "You can't fire your way into a successful school system." He was right; and the same can be said about firing principals and closing failing schools. If such were envisioned as some sort of solution, merely closing schools would mean longer commute times for students and larger, more impersonal schools, the kind likely to leave our most troubled student populations at even greater risk.

Without attracting, developing, and retaining more professional teachers, competent school managers, and innovative, promising schools, our employment problems are unlikely to go away, and we will be unable to "win the future", in President Obama's terms.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Extraordinary Responses to School Failure: Superintendents

On Wednesday I mentioned, among the four possible outcomes of California parents pulling their trigger, the direst: school closure. This hasn't happened yet; no group of parents has argued, in a parent trigger case, in favor of closing their children's school. But other people have, including some of those in a group who get paid to make tough choices: public school superintendents.

Of course not all superintendents have this decisive power over their failing schools, either because they are working under more tightly circumscribed contracts or because they don't have the necessary political backing of their local boards. Others have plenty of power but don't use it to respond in a forceful manner; these often rose through the bureaucracy by means of their compliant, agreeable personalities, and are unlikely to start stirring up trouble when they've finally reached what is likely to be the pinnacle of their careers.

One prominent superintendent who was not constrained by lack of empowerment or excessive personal delicacy was Michelle Rhee in Washington. Inheriting probably the most prominently failing district in the United States, she moved fast, closing many failing schools and dismissing teachers and principals whose performance did not meet her standards. Predictably, as at Locke and in Compton, backers of the status quo ante struck back, attacking her personally and sometimes viciously on every ground they could find, and debasing educational discourse in the process. Her mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeated in his reelection bid, and she resigned her post at DC Public Schools less than a month later.

But as in Compton, the postscript is more encouraging. Just as the rebellious parents of McKinley Elementary School eventually did get the right to send their children to a school run by people of their own choosing, so too Ms. Rhee has moved on to a promising future: last December she started StudentsFirst, a national advocacy organization that puts the interests of students ahead of all others in arguing for educational reform. This is a new organization that, like the Parent Revolution, deserves support for its willingness to sponsor bold reforms on behalf of people who had been previously disempowered, tethered to failing schools.

Two things tie together the extraordinary responders to school failure at Locke, in Compton, and in DC: a strong sense of the urgency of the need to change students' lives for the better, and implacable courage, even in the face of opposition. I admire them for that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Extraordinary Responses to School Failure: Parents

I'm convinced that most teachers care a lot about failing schools, although caring enough to give up their jobs is likely to remain extremely rare. But depending upon groups of teachers, especially in unions, to fundamentally change American education in the current dismal economic environment is unrealistic.

Fortunately a new law in California empowers another group that has long been marginalized in the school reform debates: parents. The Parent Revolution, founded two years ago, has the aim of organizing parents in dysfunctional school jurisdictions to work with them to "take back" their schools (funny--I used the exact same rhetoric in my speech at the 10 May 2007 press conference outside Locke High School) by means of California's innovative Parent Trigger law (written and passed due to the leadership of former Senator Gloria Romero). Schools that have long been failing students and their families are subject to a petition by a majority of neighborhood parents to redress those parents' grievances by means of four possible outcomes: transformation under a new principal, turnaround with a new staff and a more empowered community, conversion into a charter school under outside management (this is what we opted for at Locke), or closure.

Parents in depressed urban communities like Compton, where the Trigger was first pulled, whose local school leadership appears incapable of or indifferent to fixing their schools, too often used to lack hope. Now they have one. They should contact the Parent Revolution if they want to find out more. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Extraordinary Responses to School Failure: Teachers

As I mentioned yesterday, I taught at Locke High School in Los Angeles, and got to watch the masses of students drop out before the end of high school, or drop out of college if they got that far. This is a crucial issue: America has fallen from 1st to a tie for 14th in school life expectancy, according to the CIA World Factbook (2009). So while some of our best can attain a Structured Liberal Education at Stanford, for example, the average American student will get to college but not complete it, and most students in failing high schools won't get that far.

By the spring of 2007, the majority of the teachers at Locke High School had had enough. Principal Frank Wells, another teacher and I circulated a petition that used California's charter school laws to convert our traditionally failing public high school into a charter school in partnership with Green Dot Public Schools. A majority of tenured teachers had signed the petition by the second day, 8 May 2007, and although the Los Angeles Unified School District bureaucracy struck back to try to retain control over this campus and the revenues generated by its nearly 3000 students, it was unable to do so, and real change (and improvement) has come to Locke High School.

For the three of us who circulated that petition on 7-8 May 2007, the consequences afterwards have been gut-wrenching; but don't ever say that teachers don't care about failing schools.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ordinary Responses to School Failure: the Market

Please note, a market response to school failure only applies to schools that have to compete for students and their families, like private schools and those in systems, such as Singapore's secondary schools system, where every school must compete for students. By contrast, in America, schools often don't have to compete for students; students are simply sent there, no matter how good or bad they are, because of the student's address. This haphazard district zoning is probably the greatest source of inequality both in American education and in American life.

If private schools are bad, they lose their students, the word gets out, and the school shuts down. End of story.

I have taught in three schools in America. Most recently, I joined a failing chartered school in Silicon Valley, which had lost nearly eighty percent of its students in the six months before I arrived. It closed after one year. This was the reasonable decision of that local market. I also taught at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, an excellent private school that has grown and thrived for forty years. The market is working there too.

I also taught at a traditional public school, Locke High, which had been floundering for decades before I arrived. But there was no market in that neighborhood, no alternative for most of its students, other than to join a gang, which too many of them did.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ordinary Response to School Failure: the Press

Unfortunately, because school failure is so common in America, it is not news, and so the ordinary response of the press to a failing school is none at all.

I remember the one time, when I was working at Locke High School, a perennially failing school, that Roy Romer, the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified at that time and a former governor of Colorado, came to our school: a student had been shot to death, and he needed to manage public relations. The press did show up for that tragedy and the succeeding funeral, and promises were made by the then-principal that the student, Deliesh Allen, would never be forgotten; but that principal, Frank Wells, got sacked two years later (in consequence of aiding our uprising to turn Locke High into a charter school), and I doubt that even one percent of the students or administration now working at Locke will have ever heard her name. Such are the ways of news cycles, and the cycling of administrators and superintendents. 

Failing anything dramatic, school failure is just not very newsworthy in the United States today.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Orthodox Responses to School Failure: Governance

Great principals can turn around failing schools, but most principals are not great. Therefore those entrusted with governing our schools (most often local school boards, in big systems operating through superintendents) too often find themselves faced with complaints, and are often too distant from the day-to-day affairs of the schools they try to oversee for them to be able to do more than hold one or more meetings, investigate the situation, decide a change is necessary, remove the principal in charge, and begin (anew) the desperate, familiar search for that magical being, the educational leader who will solve all of the school's problems.

In America, in big school systems and small, this often combines vaguely informed scrutiny with a leap of faith, since no one hiring a new employee can ever be certain that the newly hired will satisfy expectations, which are sometimes heightened when the political pressures and those due to competition are making themselves felt.   

An interesting alternative to this strategy, both more local and more democratic, is that of New Zealand, which in 1990 abolished all of its local school districts, had each existing school form a board of trustees, had each school write for itself a charter to guide its operations, and has ever since had each of these boards govern its school, in the context on an overall national education strategy. Results have generally been positive.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

Orthodox Responses to School Failure: Management

When I began at Locke High School, it was clearly a failing school, with management hunkered down in the besieged posture I mentioned yesterday; this reaction, symptom IX in yesterday's list, is a consequence of symptom II, the fact that failing traditional public schools rotate principals very frequently (by my fourth year at Locke, we had already had effectively five principals). Given this precarious job security, what is a principal in a failing school to do?

Principals in our traditional public schools are in a particularly bad spot in this case because so many of the avenues available to their colleagues in private and chartered schools are shut off to them. Professor William G. Ouchi captures this memorably in Making Schools Work (page 112): "The sense of abandonment is so great in Los Angeles that three of the principals we interviewed cried during the interview as they poured out their intense feelings of loneliness and frustration."

In his newer book, The Secret of TSL*, Ouchi, cofounder of the UCLA School Management Program, summarizes what more empowered principals should do to improve their schools (16):

"If there is any vital job for a principal, it is precisely to control the major instructional variables of budget, staffing, curriculum, schedule, and professional development. Those are the levers through which the instructional leader of a school, the principal, can build a great school by attracting, developing, and retaining strong teachers."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What It Means for a School to Fail

The phrase "failing schools" has become much more frequently used in American English in the last 30 years, and that tells us something about how Americans feel about how our K-12 education is doing. I've wondered about what precisely this phrase might mean, and so turned to my dictionaries. The first useful definition of failing I found in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) is "be unable to meet the standards set by (a test)", while Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary yields "to lose strength".

Under this latter definition, schools in general in the United States are failing: as Craig Barrett points out today in The Huffington Post, "the US is essentially the only OECD country where our 25-35 year olds are less well educated than the 55-65 year olds." In California in particular our schools, including even the world-famous University of California, are failing in this sense along with our entire state, and the state legislature in about to make the situation worse: Julia Brownley's Assembly Bill 440, for example, would now require all chartered schools in communities with failing schools to have proportions of English learners--students whose test scores show they been unable to meet the English standards set by the relevant state tests--that are equal to those in the failing schools the families involved have been trying to flee, in which case what is the point of trying to get the chartered schools' students to learn English and get out of English learner status any faster than in the failing public schools?

But this point is too specific for a general definition of school failure. Having worked in a couple of failing schools, and using the COED definition above and the standards of success I posted yesterday, I would say that a failing school either (I) has no coherent philosophy that guides its faculty's decisions; (II) is governed chaotically, with revolving management; (III) is unevenly staffed, with many unprofessional teachers; (IV) is fraught with unruly, misplaced students; (V) lacks a set, coherent curriculum, or has one that will not yield students able to compete either in the workplace or at the next level of education; (VI) provides nothing like adequate support for students; (VII) lacks any significant co-curricular or after-school life, so that students flee from school as soon as the day's final bell rings; (VIII) lacks the resources necessary to support a competitive school program; (IX) is isolated from its surrounding community, with a hunkered down, fortress-like posture; or some combination of the above.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What It Means for a School to Succeed

As is often the case, examining the practices of private schools can shed useful light on those of the public. Accreditors such as NEASC/CIS (the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the Council of International Schools, which jointly accredit some of the world's best international schools), because they accredit both public and private schools and might be used to accredit that in-between hybrid, charter schools, offer useful insights of admirable flexibility for defining school quality. Importantly, they define success for the schools they accredit both in relation to each school's stated and possibly unique purposes and aims as well as more broadly applicable standards. The former may be idiosyncratic, and specific or even unique for each school; the latter are of more use for a general discussion like this. Synthesizing the accreditation criteria of these groups as well as of other outstanding education providers such as the United World Colleges and European Schools, I have come up with these, which I hope we will use to assess our own success at One World Secondary School and suggest might be used more broadly:  

I     Philosophy, aims and objectives
II    Governance and management
III   Staff
IV   Students
V    Curriculum
VI   Support for students
VII  Co-curricular and after-school life
VIII Resources
IX   Communications and community partnership

Determination of the extent to which a school is succeeding should be made by both the school community itself and outside inspectors looking at the school in relation to these broad criteria, and the various sub-categories (such as admission rules, under "Students" above) that comprise them, to assure themselves and the public at large that quality outcomes are being successfully attained at the school.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Almost Named this Blog

Yesterday I wrote about the significance of "Founding Principles". Before I hit on this name, which I came up with a day or two before my first post, I was planning to name it "Changing Minds". This would have been an homage, indirectly, to Howard Gardner, whose book Changing Minds was deeply influential on me, and indirectly influential on Locke High School, when I was reading it in the summer of 2007. We had just circulated a petition to convert Locke into a charter school; a counter-movement had been organized and had convinced 17 teachers to rescind their signatures; the L.A. Times and I had written opinion pieces urging the incoming school board to hear and vote on our petition, and they had signalled that they would do so; so the future of the school was in limbo.

I bought and was reading Changing Minds at that time for three reasons: (1) I was a teacher, and every form of learning has some form of mind change involved in it; (2) I was specifically a teacher of AP English Language and Composition, which centers on rhetoric, the persuasive use of language, so mind-changing techniques might help me and my students do well in that subject; (3) I needed to change the minds of teachers whose support we had lost or never had, or my own future would be in limbo. Also, and this was particularly apparent during the reading of Gardner's book, I needed to keep my own mind open to change, since any given dialogue would involve genuine give and take.

We won that battle, and today Locke High School really is a different place. There are many similar schools in the United States, and they need to change, too. But not just schools in ghettos need to change: there are severely underperforming schools in middle class communities as well, like Canoga Park High School, from which I graduated; and I remember in my first teaching job, at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, being amazed at the number of rich kids who could have been going to Beverly Hills High School but whose parents had opted out of that in favor of something more personal and idealistic. All kinds of schools in America need to change; and to effect these changes properly, educators need to be involved in the vanguard; and yet many of these educators themselves need their own minds to change; and I must be open to having my mind change, too.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Significance of the Name of this Blog

When I studied and later taught literature and composition, I came to the conclusion that key to good writing is packing much meaning into few words. (Frank Kermode, in Shakespeare's Language, argues that late Shakespeare takes this approach to such extremes as to be have written some passages virtually incomprehensible to his original audiences as well as to us.) To writers thus oriented, puns appeal.

There are two words in both the title and the URL of this blog, and although cognate, they do not match. "Founding Principles" was my first choice, and I hit upon "principalfoundations" for the URL only after finding that "foundingprinciples" and "foundationsprincipal" were both taken.

Among other things, founding is the present participle of to found, something a founder does. When I left Green Dot, my friend Erica Gonzales presented me with a card holder engraved "Bruce Smith" and "Founder" because she knew I planned to found a school, now known as One World Secondary School. But in this blog I am also trying to found a new, broader, more fruitful discussion of education as a whole, so as to improve it. Similarly, Foundations denotes a specific, advanced humanities course, of which I am very proud, that I teach over the last four years of secondary school; but in this blog, foundations also has indicates more generally that we will strive to discover and articulate the fundamental purposes and values of various educational proposals, so as to rise, ideally, as via Socratic dialectic, to clearer and clearer understandings of what we are trying to do.

In keeping with this, principles are what we will hope to discover and agree upon, or agree to disagree about, if that's the best we can do, after we understand one another. But principles is also homophonous with principals, the people in schools who should be best able to articulate the principal aims and values their schools are trying to further; articulating such principles is particularly important for a principal who is hoping to found a school that will serve as a proof of concept--and if the principles on which the school is founded are proved, could serve as a model for the whole world, or at least its developed parts. And all of the dialogue that I hope will take place in this blog should be useful in training principals, the demand for whom, and in particular for authentic leaders, has never been greater.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A New Voice in Education

In recent months, I've been spending a lot of time (arguably too much) contributing to various blogs and online discussions about our current situation in education, and must say I'm appalled by the discourse standards I've encountered. In particular, the tendency towards vitriolic personal attack, perhaps motivated by the frustrations of educators who know the world is changing and feel it isn't changing for the better, is marked and repellent. This last point is important because, now more than ever, we need to come together as much as possible, as a nation and as a world, to solve problems that concern us all.

I used to be suspicious of educational objectives that promised to produce students who would "change the world" or "make the world more just", since I thought they contained an anti-conservative bias, and implied that the world is wrong as it is; I wanted to teach my students how to think, not what to think. But with today's disorienting pace of change, I no longer object, because our current world is totally unsustainable and inevitably will change, whether we like it or not; so an educational aim I now approve of is to produce students who will improve the world of the 21st century. We are all going to have to work at this, or this planet by the end of this century could well contain unprecedented concentrations of massed misery.

This being our situation, yelling at each other ALL IN CAPS, impugning one another's motives or intelligence, all these things have got to go, and will henceforth be banished from this, my new blog.

A very interesting book I read is George A. Kennedy's Comparative Rhetoric. I used to teach rhetoric, in my AP English Language course, and this "historical and cross-cultural introduction" to the subject utilizes a fascinating approach. Part I studies "rhetoric in societies without writing", including even other species, and Part II "rhetoric in ancient literate societies" of the Near East, China, India, Greece and Rome. From these sources, I synthesized a classical stylistics rubric: arrangement, consistency, completeness, correctness, clarity, ornamental sweetness, and proper dignity are the linguistic characteristics most admired by people in these disparate societies, and I will try to compose my entries in a manner consistent with these traits, and invite others to do the same. I hope we will use these virtues to bring divergent educational thinkers together through online discussion that will ultimately benefit our nation and our world.